Music Appreciation: A Dying Art Or A Missed Opportunity…?

Over the past year, or so, I’ve been thinking about how we educate our young people in music.

People that know me will no doubt be aware of my views on some aspects of music education that I consider negligible in worth (ie. scales and aural tests in ABRSM exams, the Kodaly method and other similar academic delusions) but the topic that I want to talk about today is ‘music appreciation’.

Now, back in ‘Ye Olde 20th Century’ (that’s somewhere pre-Covid-19) you would hear tales of grouchy music teachers putting on the well-worn Sibelius LP and saying to his brats: “Listen to this, class, you’ll learn alot about music from this”, then leaving the room, and heading off to the staff base for the first whisky of the day, only to return at the end of side one to find the class either asleep or the room trashed (Sibelius will do that to you…).

It was either this, or the Mahler ‘Das Lied Von Der Erde’ box set

But I would like to think things have changed since then; that we, as teachers, have gone some way to enlightening the little devils – but to be honest, I’m not sure that we have.

Music appreciation is one of the only methods we have to enlighten our young people in music, the arts and culture in a broader sense, but in the current climate – with cuts being made left, right and centre – simply talking about Mus App (as we call it in the biz) seems an anachronism.

Reason being, there isn’t enough time (read: time allowed, i.e. valued by education councils) in a school music class to have pause and allow the students any semblance of “You might not like this, but have a listen anyway, and then to show them, amongst so much competition from other media, or that “This music is interesting/good/worthy of your precious attention.” And as a teacher who has been a victim of ‘slashed lesson times = bad results’ I know that time is what you need to allow new things in; to weigh up the content; to feel comfortable with a thing that was once difficult to understand – be it music, or otherwise.

And there are many other factors to consider. It’s not simply a case of a teacher saying: “I think this is good, therefore it is.” Kids don’t like that. They don’t want to told what to like. I mean, we all want to discover new things to fall in love with on our own, don’t we?

So then, how do you go about convincing someone that they might really, really like Le Marteau sans Maitre, or Shujaat Khan, or Joni Mitchell, or Siouxsie & The Banshees?

Right, let’s take a step back…

Rock/Pop music of different sorts is relatively easy to guide kids into. There are many references in their worldview to ‘classic rock’ and suchlike. They know Queen, U2, The Beatles, The Stones… In fact, I heard a young fellow playing the opening riff to Balck Sabbath’s Paranoid in a practice room the other day – he even came in after school to carry on… Wow!

But what about getting them into classical music? Hmmm… slightly more diffcult, particularly if they are not from a middle-class family that can afford a down payment on a harp.

Is this you? Then you’re already into Tournier…

Well, firstly, let’s get rid of the B.S. Kids need to know that not every single piece of classical music is good. It’s not! And a lot of it is actually very poor. But no one every tells you that, do they? No, because they have too much to lose if you dismantle their mantle.

You see, we’ve always been lead to believe that the ‘canon’ of Western Art Music (note the capitals) is ALL brilliant. From Perotin to Dowland, Corelli to Schubert, Wagner to Boulez – every single work by these guys (note the lack of women here) is worthy of your attention, AND your praise.

I’ll say it again: it’s not.

In fact, there are soooo many duff composers that one wonders how classical music can actually be popular with so much floatsam and jetsam floating and jetting to the surface on Classic FM and Radio 3. As a point, do you remember that ‘mediocrity’ that Salieri complained about in the film Amadeus? Well, it wasn’t just applicable to him…

I exaggerate slightly, of course, but I do have a point.

So, let’s consider Beethoven as example of what to play in your musical appreciation class. I mean, he’s supposed to be good, right?

Now, Ludwig Van is always considered a cut above the rest, particularly in the classical era – admittedly when nothing much else was happening – but still he produced some howlers. So, let’s pretend you have a chance to impress your mates with your Beethovenian tastes. What do you play? OK, I’ll make it easy, here’s your choice: the Violin Concerto OR the Waldstein piano sonata.

No contest, IMO. The Waldstein – all the way. In fact, I often feel that the Waldstein is Beethoven’s best work.

But why? Well, my analysis will follow in another blog post, but suffice to say it’s one of his most ‘progressive’ and ‘unique’ works.

Beethoven – actually quite handsome… !

But hang on, you must remember that Beethoven had the advantage over many composer (just as Mozart did, with his show-biz Dad taking him all across Europe to play for the various Dukes and Duchesses, and therfore allowing him the great resource of studying with the many court composers of the time) as he marks the point in music history where composers were no longer exclusively dependent on their patrons. Sure, Beethoven did have private funding, mainly from the Archduke Rudolph, son of Leopold II, but he also made his cash from publishing.

And clearly, this takes the sting off things, and allows LV to be less worried about experimentation, and thus offending the ‘nice but dims’ with too many notes or passages they found boring. And, don’t forget the piano (now with a zircon-encrusted metal frame and extra sub-bass keys!) made a massive difference to his range.

So, his stuff is richer harmonically AND he gets to use more notes. In brief: ‘He’s got a fuzz box and he’s gonna use it’ (and if you don’t know that reference then you’re either: 1. not from Birmingham, or 2. too young, and will need to do some research).

All this makes Beethoven a more interesting composer than the majority of composers who have come before him. He was quicker to get to a freedom of composition in his lifetime (compare this to Bach who remained stylistically stagnant throughout his career), and this makes a difference.

But would this information impress a 14 year-old?

I really don’t know…

There is also a cult of bringing the high arts to the kids that has been going on for the past 20-30 years or so. Outreach stuff from theatres, orchestras etc. and some of it is very successful. Particularly the theatre stuff. They seem to know what they are doing. And I’m thinking predominately here of devised theatre projects and so forth. Allowing the kids to improvise, create their own work on a topic that actually means someting to them: gender issues, politics, realtionships etc. All good. But not obviously transferable to music. Words are words, notes are notes. But does it have to be this way?

I get very annoyed with opera companies that want to bring opera to schools. Usually it’s the Mozartian-buffa ones: “Opera’s a laugh” they say, or “It’s got stories in it that are revelant today” they insist, having borrowed that from Shakespearian outreach. Of course, most companies need to fulfill an education brief, and they do it as them appearing to reach out to us, but so often it’s the other way around.

“Even if we get one child interested then we have done our job”, they say.


Opera Buffa – absolutely hilarious! And still culturally significant!

And what about contemporary music? Even more difficult… But a good way, I’ve found, is to introduce this to youngsters through improvisation. And I don’t mean jazz improv, as that is too highly-skilled for children who have no knowledge of the rules and regs. No, free improv allows kids to ‘play’ without the stress of getting it ‘right or wrong’.

As someone with strong autodidact tendencies, I have never found it difficult to try out new music. My own listening veers towards more difficult music: modern classical, avant jazz, improv, death metal and prog rock etc. but not exclusively. Those of us born in the 50s/60s or early 70s have a clear advantage over most listeners. Not only have we been exposed to more music for a longer period of time (obvs) but we were also around from the various beginnings of (current) popular musics. We have a breadth of knowledge (I would hope) that runs deep… if you’ve been keeping your ears open, I may hasten to add. And there’s the rub, Wishbone Ash fans !!

So, the question is: Who is telling you what’s good? Is it the musician who likes only classical music, who dislikes jazz and can’t abide folk and rock? Is it someone who only listens to AC/DC? Or the ageing pop-sophisticate who thinks post-punk is the only stuff to engage with?

“You see, Gorguts’ music contains a rhythmic sophistication not found in the works of Judas Priest or the Scorpions…”

No. You need to have listened to ALL kinds of music, and have gone to it with no prejudices, and found the good stuff in everything. Because there is good folk music, there is good jazz, there is good punk, there is good Hindustani classical, there is good country, there is good easy-listening, good metal, good hip-hop and shoegaze… do I need to go on?

So, until you’ve done that, then IMO you are not fully equipped to teach musical appreciation, because you’re not able to compare and contrast between the disciplines.

In conclusion, I would say this: You owe it to music to make listening your lifelong study. Open your ears, yes, but first, open your mind.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s